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Willmar artist ever ready to serve

Bill Oakleaf of Willmar recently completed a 20-foot mural he has been working on for four years. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Deer wander in a grassy field. A rabbit peeks up from behind a rock. A loan eagle soars overhead, and raccoons drink from a creek.

Bill Oakleaf hopes the animals he tucked into the landscape on his 20-foot mural of Texas wildflowers will attract the interest of the children who will see it at the Tejas for Christian Ministry in Giddings, Texas.

The Willmar man just finished the mural, part of the volunteer work he's done during his 20 years of retirement.

For now, it's in his garage, waiting to be picked up on Tuesday and taken to Texas.

The focus of the mural was to be Texas wildflowers, and he used official brochures to get the bluebonnets and other flowers right. But he wanted more visual interest, so he added lots of details, large and small.

A creek meanders through the mural, and rolling hills and trees are in the background. Cows, horses, sheep and pigs graze in different spots, and birds, including a red-headed woodpecker, are in the trees.

Oakleaf, 78, said the mural represents 600 hours of work over four years.

It will hang in 10-foot sections on either side of a fireplace at the camp outside Giddings, a town about the size of Litchfield 50 miles straight east of Austin.

The terrain in that area reminds him of northern Kandiyohi County, with rolling hills and patches of forest, he said.

Oakleaf and his wife, Margaret, are members of a group called Sowers, which stands for Servants on Wheels Ever Ready. It's a broad group of retired people with recreational vehicles who travel around the country helping churches, youth camps and other organizations with projects.

For 24 hours of work in a week, the volunteers get free RV hookups for the week. Meals aren't part of the deal, but they are sometimes invited to have a meal with the people they are helping. The relatively short work days leave them time to explore new places or go to dinner and visit with the other Sowers volunteers.

Their work with Sowers has taken them to all parts of the country. They've worked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Florida Keys, Colorado, Texas and many other places. They have made friends with other couples from all over the country.

The work has varied. He has done all types of work, Oakleaf said. He hasn't always used his skills as an artist, but he has done it often.

The Oakleafs don't travel as much now, because Margaret has Parkinson's disease. They have stayed in touch with Sowers friends, and he stays involved with projects like the mural.

They cherish the memories of the Sowers trips. "It's been a great blessing in our life," he said.

He likes to encourage other people to get involved in retirement activities.

"It sure beats playing shuffleboard all day," he said. "When you retire, it isn't the end."

Oakleaf, 78, retired 20 years ago from teaching technical art and illustration at Ridgewater College. When he started the program, he said, it was the only one like it in a five-state area. Margaret worked at Maracom, handling mailing lists for the business's clients. They have one son, Chad, who is a Willmar police officer.

Oakleaf's interest in art started young. He still has his first oil painting. He made his own canvas by gluing a piece of an old window shade to a sheet of cardboard and painted Christopher Columbus sitting on a dock, dreaming of the new world. A few years later, he went to a hardware store to buy a real canvas for an oil painting of horses.

As a young man in 1958, he painted a 34-foot mural in his parents' Hamburger House restaurant on Benson Avenue. It depicted the first 100 years of Kandiyohi County history, in honor of the state's centennial. The mural was eventually destroyed, and he is disappointed now that he doesn't have a photo of it.

Oakleaf has always enjoyed developing logos, too. Though they probably don't realize it, many people in the area are familiar with his work. He designed the flowing "W" symbol used by the Willmar School District and the Barn Theatre logo.

For more information about the Sowers, go to

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340